July 25, 2007

Smackdown 1988: the summary

As part of each month's Supporting Actress Smackdown, our host StinkyLulu asks each of us Smackdowners to post a summary of our reactions, so here goes. The contenders (with links to my original comments):

Let's work our way up from the bottom of the heap:

Pfeiffer has what should be the most interesting role of the bunch, and gives the least interesting performance. It's all phony tears and blank facial expressions, communicating nothing. The role of Mme. de Tourvel demands deep emotion; it is certainly a legitimate acting choice that all of that emotion should be repressed and bottled up, but even so, we in the audience have to know that it's there, and Pfeiffer gives us none of it. An undeserved nomination, especially when there is a much better supporting performance in the same movie from Uma Thurman.

McDormand works very hard, and makes very specific physical choices in an attempt to bring some life to the role of Mrs. Pell, but she is ultimately betrayed by the script; there's simply no character there to be played. I admire the effort, and it pays off in lovely individual moments, but even McDormand can't turn this black hole into a real person.

Davis is also let down by her writers, but in a different way. There's plenty for her to play; Muriel is a great mountain of eccentricities and tics. But it's not a very distinctive character -- you can easily imagine any of the other four actresses in this group playing Muriel -- and the writers never answer the key question: why is Muriel attracted to Macon Leary at all, much less so obsessed as to stalk him all the way to Paris? It's a performance of great charm and warmth, but with no answer to that riddle, Muriel can never become more than the sum of her quirks.

Weaver gives a solid performance, though I think she overplays the ogre in Katharine in the second half of the movie. She's nicely ambiguous in the opening scenes, when we're not entirely sure how much we should trust Katharine, and her final moments are quite nice, as we watch her struggling to hang on to some shred of dignity while her world collapses around her. But it's a performance that any of a dozen actresses could have given, and there are none of the delightful moments of surprise that you find in a great performance.

Cusack, on the other hand, gives us those moments, and does so in a role that's very limited on the page. She's the nutty sidekick; even worse, her function in the film allows the character very little room for change or growth. It's a broadly comic performance, but Cusack finds subtlety in it, and when she is allowed a moment of emotional honesty and confrontation, it's perfectly played. We understand Cyn's pain and fear, and Cusack gives us all of that without ever losing the character's wit and humor. By far the best performance of the group.

The final results, with comments from the whole Smackdown gang, will be posted at Lulu's on Sunday morning; I'll post a link to it then, and to each of the other Smackdowner's comments as they become available. I've enjoyed taking part, and am happy to have been invited back for at least one more Smackdown later this year.

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